Travel: A short brerak in Seattle

Matthew Brace explores America's hippest city, home to 'Frasier', classy coffee, computer know-how and a dripping green wilderness

Guarding America's Pacific North West, Seattle has given the world Frasier, grunge music, and the late-20th-century coffee boom. It lies between the breathtaking Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean inlet of Puget Sound, a position that promotes a notoriously wet climate. It can feel un-American at times, such are the Asian and European influences on cuisine and shops, but the calamitous freeway that tears right through the heart of town reminds visitors that they are in the land the automobile devoured.

Seattle is striding ahead. The rapid growth of the computer industry, much of which is based here, has prompted some to dub it the new Silicon Valley, and as a result of the demand for labour it is one of the fastest growing cities in the US.

It is also gaining in popularity with overseas tourists. Some come to experience a seriously hip city, others use it as a base to explore the beautiful wildernesses of the Cascades and Olympic National Park rainforest, and the roaring Pacific coastline stretching down to the Oregon border.

When to go

Seattle has a wet maritime climate so pack an umbrella and some fast film for murky conditions. Rainfall is lower in summer and temperatures near perfect (in the high 20s), making this high season. The autumn is cooler and wetter but can be beautiful as the leaves turn to fiery red.

Getting there

Travel agents are quoting the following fares: British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) is the only non-stop carrier (pounds 298 return in November and early December but double for the millennium). American Airlines (tel: 0181-572 5555) and United Airlines (tel: 0845 844 4777) both fly via Chicago and have fares of pounds 270 for the same time. Next June BA will cost pounds 407, American pounds 406 and United pounds 420.

Getting around

The helpful ground transportation desk in the main terminal of Sea-Tac airport has maps and information on accommodation and tours. Sea-Tac is a 20-minute drive outside the city. You can rent cars at all hours but check for hidden charges and get clear directions to your hotel. Seattle roads gridlock from time to time, especially if you get caught in the mass exodus of workers from the huge Boeing aircraft factory at the end of a shift.

The Gray Line Airport Express minibuses are reasonable (pounds 5 one-way downtown) and drop off at most hotels, but can be confusing especially after a long flight. Tickets can be bought from a kiosk at the back of the ground transportation desk. Check how long the queue is for the buses.

If there are two or more of you, the most comfortable option is to split a taxi (about pounds 20-pounds 30 downtown but agree a rough estimate with the driver first).

Once in the city, almost everywhere is walkable. If it is after dark or you are feeling lazy, most taxi rides are under pounds 5, but they are not always plentiful on the streets so carry a couple of firms' numbers with you.

Where to stay

If you like the surreal and don't mind the cost, try the Monaco, 1101 4th Ave (tel: 001 206 621 1770), double rooms from about pounds 150 - it's pet- friendly and has had numerous cat, dog and rabbit guests. For guests unable to bring their own pets, the hotel offers a complimentary surrogate goldfish for their stay.

The Inn at the Market, 86 Pine St (tel: 001 206 443 3600), double rooms from approx pounds 90, is in a great location near the famous food markets and has ocean views. It has a sun deck where you can take an evening drink and watch the ferries cruising across Puget Sound.

The stylish Ace Hotel, 2423 1st Ave (tel: 001 206 448 4721), double rooms from approx pounds 50, is a minimalist's mecca with whitewashed brick walls and little furniture save the bed.

The Sorrento, 900 Madison Ave (tel: 001 206 622 6400), double rooms from approx pounds 130, is one of Seattle's oldest hotels, opened 90 years ago.

If you are on a shoestring budget, try the dorms at the Hosteling International Seattle, 84 Union Street (tel: 001 206 622 5443), dorm beds from approx pounds 15.

What to see and do

The best buy in town is CityPass ticket booklet (about pounds 15, lasts nine days) which gives you entry to several top attractions: the famous Space Needle, a futuristic survivor of the World's Fair held in 1962 that looks much better from the outside, especially at night when it is lit; the Art Museum, which houses a wonderful collection of native art from the Pacific North West; the Museum of Flight, where the original Air Force One is on display; the Pacific Science Centre; the Aquarium; and the Woodland Park Zoo.

For a fascinating tour, if a little macabre, contact Windsor Olson, a retired private eye who worked on many of the biggest murder cases in Seattle. His laconic, matter-of-fact way of describing scenes of gore is alarming at first but his charm wins through. For pounds 15 he takes visitors on a tour through the city, pointing out where so-and-so was shot or stabbed and how the case panned out (tel: 001 206 622 0590).

Food and Drink

Cafe culture is thriving in Seattle. Everyone finds an excuse to sit and dose up on caffeine. Piroshky-Piroshky, 1908 Pike Place (tel: 001 206 441 6068), one of a number of Russian cafes, serves devilishly strong coffee and tasty pastries. At the Sit and Spin, 2219 4th Ave (tel: 001 206 441 9484), you can, as the name suggests, wash your smalls and get your coffee fix at the same time.

A lot of the coffee shops seem to shut earlier than advertised in guidebooks and local newspapers (a number have closed down altogether) which makes finding a cappuccino after 10pm a bit difficult. Hotel porters always seem to know the best places to go.

For an exciting evening meal try the predominantly Japanese and South East Asian-influenced Blowfish at the Paramount hotel, 722 Pine St (tel: 001 206 467 7777), main courses pounds 6-pounds 10, where the open-plan kitchen is in the middle of the restaurant. Diners with asbestos eyebrows can sit at a counter inches from the flames and spitting oil and chat to the chefs.

A good spot for lunch is Ivar's fish restaurant, Pier 54, waterfront (tel: 001 206 624 6852), main meals pounds 5-pounds 10. The views out over the sound are good, the chowders are tasty, and it has a bar with a wide range of real ales from the many micro-breweries in the Pacific North West.

The Pabla Indian Restaurant, 1516 2nd Ave (tel: 001 206 623 2868), main meals pounds 5-pounds 7, serves a good chicken tikka massala and an excellent mango lassi, as well as ice-cold Cobra beer, but they are lenient on the spices so a medium curry comes out mild.

Nightlife

Live music is big in Seattle. Blondie were playing the night I rolled into town but the city boasts more of an underground scene. Grunge music began life here with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam drawing vast and wild crowds. Seattle is still full of the spaced-out vest-and-goatee-wearing adolescents who keep the music scene alive. Like the cafes, venues come and go, so the best bet is to check the press (Seattle Weekly and a paper called Rocket).

Out of town

Olympic National Park is a rare example of temperate rainforest and worth a day trip to see ancient oaks draped in moss and walk the trails in search of wildlife. Contact Washington State Tourism (tel: 001 360 586 2088).The Cascades are young compared with many mountain ranges, and some are still active. Mt St Helens blew its top 20 years ago and could do so again according to vulcanologists. The visitors' centre at Johnson Ridge offers an exciting film of the eruption (real footage and special effects) and some stunning views of what is left of the crater. Contact Washington State Tourism (tel: 001 360 586 2088).

Several cruises leave the harbour and criss-cross Puget Sound. Try the Seattle-King County Tourism (tel: 001 206 461 5840) for a list of companies.

Washington State's stretch of Pacific coast is beautiful. Rent a car for a long weekend and head down to Long Beach near the Oregon border (with 27 miles of uninterrupted sand it claims the title of the world's longest).

Stay at the historic and charming Shelburne Inn (tel: 001 360 642 5660) or the Boreas B&B (tel: 001 360 642 8069) which is like a family beach house.

Deals and packages

Destination USA (tel: 0171-400 7000) has a two-night package based on two adults sharing at the Westcoast Roosevelt in November for pounds 395 per person for return flights and room only, excluding airport transfers. Peregor (tel: 01895 630871/639900) has a three-night package based on two adults sharing at the Westin Seattle in November (must include a Saturday night) for pounds 470 per person for return flights and room, excluding airport transfers. Also check major travel agents.

Further information

Call the UK office for the Port of Seattle (tel: 0171-978 5233), or access the Seattle-King County tourism website at www.seeseattle.org.

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